in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Astonishment of Prayer: Wittgenstein reads Thomas Merton, Durham University, September 2014

Dear All

I am just putting the final touches to my paper to be delivered at this week's 'Mystical Theology' conference to be held at St John's College,Durham, starting tomorrow. Perhaps I shall see of you there...

I attach the conclusion of the paper which may either spoil it for those attending the conferences or whet your appetites - I hope the latter.

In the meantime, with all good wishes


When Wittgenstein was returning to the work of philosophy in the 1930s after his own self-enforced exile of over a decade from its practice, he expresses his own new approach to the task of philosophy in language very reminiscent of Merton’s. From this time onwards he sees philosophy as possessing a clear method or as he describes it in the Philosophical Investigations and the Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough (RFGB), eine Übersichtliche Blick/ Übersichtliche Darstellung – a ‘clear overview’ or, as it is often translated, a ‘perspicuous view’ – literally - a ‘way of seeing’.
This ‘perspicuous view’, he states, is ‘of fundamental importance’ to his approach and he describes it as that which: ‘brings about the understanding which consists precisely in the fact that we “see the connections”. Hence the importance of finding Zwischengliedern (“connecting links”)’ (PI:133). These Zwischengliedern ‘do nothing but direct the attention to the similarity, the relatedness of the facts’. As he states it in the final text of the Philosophical Investigations:

A main source of our misunderstandings is that we do not übersehen (oversee) the use of our words. - Our Grammar is lacking an Übersichtlichkeit (overview). - The Übersichtliche Darstellung produces the understanding which allows us to ‘see connections’. Hence the importance of finding and inventing Zwischengliedern.
The concept of the Übersichtliche Darstellung is of fundamental significance for us. It designates our Darstellungsform (viewpoint), the way we see things. ( Is this a Weltanschauung?). (PI: 122)

Which returns us to the conditions of the dawning of an aspect with which we began this paper. In the Investigations Wittgenstein is at pains to distinguish between ‘the continuous seeing’ of an aspect (such as the duck-rabbit) and the ‘dawning’ / Aufleuchten of an aspect (PI xi 194e/ PU 520) for as he explains ‘the expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged’ (PI xi 196e/PU 522). For Aspect-seeing/the Dawning of an Aspect is a ‘half-visual, half-thought experience’ (LWP 1:554 das Erlebnis des Aspektswechsels/das Aufleuchten des Aspekts scheint halb Seh-, halb Gedankenerlebnis). I would interpret this as Wittgenstein suggesting that the dawning of an aspect really goes beyond the logical faculty to a place that is ‘half seen/ half thought’. Almost against the pull of reason the conditions for the change of aspect reach beyond the bound of Aristotelian logic: ‘Aristotelian logic brands a contradiction as a non-sentence, which is to be excluded from language. But this logic only deals with a very small part of the logic of our language’ (LWP 1:525). For as Wittgenstein beautifully concludes: ‘Dem Aspektwechsel wesentlich ist ein Staunen. Und Staunen ist Denken’: ‘The Change of Aspect is essentially an astonishment. And astonishment is thinking’ (LWP 1:565). One of the chief characteristics of the Change of Aspect is that it occurs against our will (LWP 1:612), it occupies, we could say, adopting the language of mystical theology, the place of unknowing. Thus, although expressed in different ways, I would suggest that Wittgenstein’s Blick that allows us to see the ‘dawning of an Aspect’ and Merton’s Zen-like Cassian ‘clarity’ are both evoked against the common enemy of the objective-subjective dualistic Cartesian flybottle that forces our thoughts in a certain (unhealthy) direction. Both ‘seers’ would prefer to trust the intuition of the ‘half thought- half seen’ aspect-forming view (Wittgenstein)/clarity of contemplative vision (Merton) in their battle against what Wittgenstein would famously sum up as the ‘bewitchment of our language’. As we pass from the knowing of Aristotelian logic to move into the area of unknowing so central to the mystical tradition and this unknowing is for Merton one of the key characteristics of the contemplative life. As he tells his novices: ‘One of the most important things in the life of prayer is to let a great deal go on without knowing quite what is going on’, for, ‘the great danger to prayer is learning how to act in a spiritual way. The thing that holds us down in prayer is that we want to act in a way which we are accustomed to that is not necessarily God’s way’. Too much reflection on prayer, or worse, trying to force our thoughts along in a certain prescribed ‘spiritual way’ will lead us away from the goal that we seek. As with Wittgenstein, ‘astonishment is thinking’ – we could even say – ‘astonishment is prayer’. As he describes it in one of his last lectures on Sufism:

We tend to think that (the spiritual life) works like this: We do something very generous then you get a flood of consolation and you press the right button every Monday morning and then you swim through the week on a tide of consolation and start again at the next weekend.

On the contrary, as he bluntly puts it, the spiritual life is going well ‘when a person realises what a mess he is in’. When the intellect and heart have dried and the thought of God’s consolation seems furthest removed. For, after weeks, months, years of this:

All of a sudden, at the right moment the thing comes in a flash – and you see the whole thing and find youve covered a great deal of ground without realising it. You suddenly come out in a whole new place. Its what they call a breakthrough. And what you do is you breakthrough into a deeper level of yourself. What you find is a deeper truth that’s really in you – and it’s not yours, it’s God’s.